How The U.S. Air Force Does Such A Great Job Of Transporting Precious Cargo Worldwide.

By Donna J. Kelly

Does the word “extraction” make you think of cargo being jettisoned from an aircraft? U.S. Air Force loadmasters use this term to describe the process of dropping palletized cargo from a Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules. The cargo is not pushed or propelled. Its ejection happens via extraction chutes that drag the cargo out into the airstream and free of the aircraft. The main parachute then deploys, and the cargo drifts earthward at a speed that hopefully allows the pallet or other container to land safely.

There are many factors that are involved in this seemingly simple process. The number of assorted mechanisms and devices are too numerous to mention all of them in this context. In addition, outside forces, such as weather and overall flying conditions, are critical to include in the cargo analysis, loading, and delivery process. Most important to this procedure are properly trained crew members, who have access to technical data and accrued loadmaster knowledge.

Good news is that the science and technology of air cargo delivery has been in development since the earliest aircraft transports. And thanks to some recent developments, today’s military mobile air commands are continuing to upgrade their aircraft capabilities to increase cargo loads, and fly farther and faster with reduced costs.


Newest Restraint Devices Reduce Costs

Gross weight is a major consideration for all aircraft, and it is even more critical for transports that have to carry their own weight along with an often substantial load of cargo. The reliability of restraint devices is another key factor: cargo must be secured, both for the safety of the plane and crew.

A study commissioned by the U.S. Air Force in 2014 focused upon safety concerns in regard to “tensioners.” Tensioners are devices that tighten and cinch cargo straps around cargo loads. One major success in this research was the development of new tensioners by ANCRA International of Erlanger, Kentucky, provider of innovative, timely, and cost-effective solutions to the U.S. military for over 40 years. These tensioners are designed to weigh less and be more reliable over time than the products previously used.

Michael Holmes is Director, Government and Military Sales and Contracts, for ANCRA International, states, “ANCRA’s newest and lightest CGU-8/A Aircraft Chain Tensioner guarantees multi-million dollar annual fuel savings to Air Mobility Commands. Replacing the MB -1 and CGU-4/E, the CGU-8/A Chain Tensioner has a 10,000-pound capacity. The 360-degree, patented, swiveling hook assembly also incorporates a secondary safety lock feature, and meets the requirements of MIL-DTL-25959H for MIL-DTL-6458 Type I chain.”

Other weight reduction initiatives are being evaluated at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, where new synthetic tie-downs and winch cables for the Boeing C-17 Loadmaster III are being tested. According to Captain Randall Hodkin of the U.S. Air Force Research Lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, the devices, manufactured by Sampson Rope of Ferndale, Washington, “are designed to reduce aircraft gross weight by nearly 1,000 pounds per C-17.” He predicts, “The new equipment will save the Air Force approximately $4 million annually.” While the specific winch being tested will remain for use on the C- 17 only, eventually the synthetic tie-downs will be manufactured for use on other types of cargo aircraft.

C-17-Globemaster-III-largest airdrop

Speed and efficiency also are important in meeting the logistical demands of cargo transport. Innovators at AmSafe Bridport, of Bridport, England, refer to themselves as “pioneers in the manufacturing of cargo protection covers.” AmSafe Bridport designs cargo netting to last, with features such as proprietary anti-abrasive knotless intersections, allowing for faster buildup times, and anti-corrosive finishes that offer salt-spray resistance for up to 360 hours.

This company’s new one-piece cargo net provides a good example of how they are working to speed up the process of cargo handling. Traditional cargo nets come in three pieces and are fitted around the load. AmSafe Bridport asserts that the one-piece net facilitates faster installation and removal times, reduces snagging, and other jams that can occur with standard, multi-part nets, and is easier to use when covering irregularly shaped loads. The one-piece net has been approved by the U.S. Department of Defense Air Transportability Agency. In addition, North American Trade Organization (NATO) ally Norway has replaced their American Mil Specification three-piece pallet nets with the AmSafe Bridport product.

C 17 Haiti relief-a

Shifting Loads and the Need for Centralized Technical Data

The crash of the National Airlines 747 aircraft carrying military cargo out of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan reveals the kind of disaster that can occur when cargo is not properly secured. Devices such as 9G nets now exist and go a long way in counteracting the forces of radically shifting cargo. But the best way to fly safe and successful cargo missions is for everyone involved to be fully trained and have every bit of available knowledge and data at their fingertips, particularly when determining the correct methods and tools for cargo restraint.

The Air Transportability Test Loading Activity (ATTLA), located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, has the mission of ensuring that cargo loaded on U.S. Air Force aircraft is safe for flight. It also is responsible for ensuring the compatibility of various cargo with the specific capabilities of the several types of cargo planes in the Air Force fleet.

As Mark Kuntavanish, Lead Engineer for ATTLA, states, “ATTLA was created to centralize expertise for airlift and be a resource for aircrews and military transportation agencies. Prior to ATTLA, aircrews were responsible for ensuring that their plane could carry its cargo and that proper restraints were used to secure the load. At times, this caused delays and cancellation of missions for crews that may not have had adequate information or expertise to accurately determine the compatibility of the cargo with the plane.” ATTLA also provides assistance with other transport concerns, such as flying conditions that include rapid altitude changes, air turbulence, and various vibration signatures.

Personnel at ATTLA respond to requests for assistance in different ways. They may fly to the site that needs help, or they might make determinations and provide guidance regarding safe flight parameters using formulas and computational tools located at their offices.

To ATTLA, the importance of crew survivability is paramount when configuring cargo aircraft. Caroline Buckley, a Mechanical Engineer for ATTLA, stresses that “Securing cargo isn’t just about protecting the load, but about protecting the people around it.” The events occurring in an aircraft crash or even an emergency landing are greatly magnified should the cargo shift or break free, causing greater structural damage to the aircraft and potentially injuring or killing people on board.

 7th MSC Soldiers support AFRICOM’s Operation Echo Casemate

Training, Training, and More Training

Perhaps the number one factor in successful cargo transport is proper initial and ongoing training of loadmasters and other personnel involved in the cargo process. Making this job easier are systems designed by L-3 Link Simulation and Training, headquartered in Arlington, Texas, that provide hands-on training without tying up actual aircraft.

According to L-3 Marketing Communications Manager Joe Rivera, “There are three Cargo Compartment Trainers (big, full-scale mockups of the aircraft cargo compartment): two at Altus Air Force Base, Oklahoma, and one in Australia. There are also twenty Load Station Trainers: nineteen in the United States, and one in Australia. These trainers are mockups of the loadmaster station in the aircraft, but the cargo compartment is virtual and shown on a video display.”

The most recent trainer was installed at Martinsburg Air National Guard Base in Martinsburg West Virginia, and supports the mission of the 167th Airlift Wing’s global air mobility mission. The C-17 trainer is said to be the largest aircrew training system within the U.S. Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, and it has trained more than 1,500 pilots and loadmasters using twenty-three variants of aircrew and maintenance training devices.

Real-time training of military cargo aircraft will occur this summer during an exercise that was once called the “AMC Rodeo.” This intense competition has evolved into what the U.S. Air Force now refers to as the “Mobility Guardian” exercise. The first event is scheduled for July 30 through August 12, 2017, at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington.

Major General Jerry Martinez, the Air Mobility Command (AMC) Director of Operations explains, “The exercise will be one of the most realistic, real-world, scenario-driven exercises the command has ever undertaken. The objective is to execute rapid global mobility missions we see today, as well as those we anticipate in the future, and to enhance mobility partnerships.” According to Martinez, “Mobility Guardian will focus on exercising with the allies we depend upon every day to enhance the ability of our Airmen to overcome challenges and achieve national objectives.”

The Mobility Guardian exercise has attracted much international interest, as well as attention from partners in combat, air, and special operations forces. “Interoperability with our joint and allied partners is crucial to be able to move people, planes, and cargo into contested environments around the world,” says General Carlton D. Everhart II. “Mobility Guardian will be our premier exercise for U.S. and allied units to train together and improve joint capabilities. We’ll train like we fight.”
Napoleon was quoted as saying, “An army marches on their stomachs.” But as we all know, the armed forces in today’s environments need a lot more than that to accomplish their missions, varied as they are. Technology will continue to evolve and knowledge will accumulate, furthering our abilities to reach out and deliver what is needed to support an endless range of missions globally, wherever and whenever necessary.


Image #1 – Members of the Air Force Research Labs Advanced Power Technology Office, Air Mobility Command, Air Force Special Operations Command, Team Charleston, Air Transportability Test Loading Activity (ATTLA), Boeing, and cable designer Samson Rope met at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, to conduct an operational evaluation of new synthetic cargo tie-downs and winch cables  in November 2016. The evaluation was a culmination of an initiative to reduce aircraft weight by almost 1,000 pounds for better fuel efficiency.  The new devices are predicted to provide savings to the U.S. Air Force of approximately $4 million each year. (Image courtesy of

Image #2 – A C-130 is shown performing a Low Altitude Parachute Extraction. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

Image #3 – Twenty U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs are show flying over Charleston, South Carolina, in late 2006. The C-17s, assigned to the 437th and 315th Airlift Wings at Charleston Air Force Base, were part of the largest C-17 formation in history to fly from a single base and demonstrated the strategic airdrop capability of the U.S. Air Force. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Richard W. Rose Jr.)

Image #4 – This C-17 aircraft from Charleston Air Force Base, South Carolina, is conducting Operation Thunderstruck over North Auxiliary Airfield near North, South Carolina,  in a demonstration of the global projection of U.S. airpower. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, by Staff Sergeant Joshua L. DeMotts)

Image #5 – More than thirty members of the 621st Contingency Response Wing aboard a C-17 Globemaster III at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, are show waiting for equipment to be loaded before takeoff for a flight to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in October  2016, in response to the government of Haiti’s request for assistance following Hurricane Matthew. The unit provided assistance by facilitating the movement of humanitarian aid and cargo. (Photo by Airman 1st Class Zachary Martyn, Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst,  Public Affairs Office)

Image #6 – U.S. Army Reservists load pallets onto a C-17 from Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, during a joint partnered movement control mission with French Air Force members in February 2016. The cargo delivered supported the U.S. Africa Command’s Operation Echo Casemate resupply mission to French military forces deployed to the Central African Republic. (Photo by Sergeant 1st Class Matthew Chlosta)